Luxury Elite noir

[Self-Released; 2016]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: (post?-)vaporwave, lounge, smooth jazz, quiet storm
Others: Eyeliner, Paul Hardcastle, Sade, WJZW-FM 105.9

“[Vaporwave’s major exponents] all tend to work with glossy corporate mood music, dredged from the nether regions of the internet, which they then reframe (sometimes obviously looped, pitched, and screwed; sometimes not) in an intriguingly ambivalent gesture between endorsement and critique. Sometimes the effect is genuinely sublime. Often it remains vacant and grotesque.”
– James Parker, TMT writer

I W▓nt Your §ax 彡Intro

The saxophone is an instrument entirely befitting its place in jazz music. Invented in 1840 by Adolphe Sax, it came well after the development and refinement of Western musical sentiments, gaining only limited orchestral use. Despite witnessing a brief, era-defining surge in popularity in the 1980s, the saxophone has largely been maligned or written off as novelty: viewed by listeners as superfluous — too niche to warrant sincere application, let alone sincere listening. But like its adoptive genre jazz, the saxophone is a crucial cultural artifact, straddling the fault lines between the traditional and the popular, between the residual and the dominant. Defined by this distinctly modern permanent liminality, the saxophone, as it stands today, is among the most ironic of the wind instruments.

Digital  Low  Tide

Which, of course, makes it ripe for appropriation by artists associated with vaporwave. Is an introduction even in order? Since Computer Dreams and the late-2011 arrival of Macintosh Plus’s ground-breaking Floral Shoppe — along with James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual, Daniel Lopatin’s Eccojams Vol. 1, so goes the apocrypha — the vaporwave set have applied their cold, “cyberpunk aesthetic” to some of our favorite time-bound works, creating anachronistic aberrations that proved to be equal parts challenging and rewarding. After Floral Shoppe dropped, and like the waves before it, the vaporwave scene underwent a dramatic expansion in both production and recognition, gaining new faces — some arrivistes — and both detractors and fans alike. The divide in opinion surrounding the merits of vaporwave’s critique runs deep and has always, unfortunately, overshadowed the music itself, but it’s like The Washington Post: if you don’t get it, you don’t get it, n’a’mean?

While vaporwave’s boost in exposure — fueled in part by Bandcamp, /mu/, YouTube, and other fan spaces — may have initially seemed like a natural development, it was not a tenable one. Independent music is not too big to fail, and when vaporwave’s increased recognition eventually culminated in an MTV rebrand “heavily inspired” by both vaporwave and seapunk, commentators intervened to put the microgenre out of its misery, declaring it effectively drawn and quartered. Former vaporwave artists like ESPRIT 空想 have since moved on to bigger, bolder territory, while others have simply vanished, like liquid into, well, vapor.


Cries of genre-“death” notwithstanding, the song remains the same: whether Con$umer or Produ¢er, devot€€s will always exist. This glad fact leads us finally to Luxury Elite, vaporwave’s resident stylite, who has self-released noir. While retaining most of the sonic trappings of previous recordings, noir jettisons vaporwave’s weighty, psuedo-academic treatment of critical narrative — chic critique — for a more familiar dialogue, one defined by finitude and linearity. noir, as an album, is one long self-contained tone poem, an aperture into a single shared night out that feels like forever. While far from being the centerpiece, noir’s aspirations are importantly embodied by the album’s implementation of the saxophone.

Most vaporwave has always sounded like a future past: retrofitted jams for robots hyped up on a proprietary blend of lean and motor oil, lacking a (sincere) voice other than chopped and slopped AC radio vocals: voices beaten and battered into submission. A saxophone, however, is not a synth pad or a sampler: it demands, in principle, the air that we breath to function. Thus, even when synthesized, as is probably the case on noir, the saxophone evokes visions of life and work.

The saxophone slithers, moving in and out of much of noir with minimal waste and maximal joy. While its presence is mercurial, unpredictable even, it importantly indicates a renewed emphasis on handcrafted melody, as opposed to a simple focus on texture, atmosphere, or sampling acumen. This, coupled with the saxophone’s distinct timbre, lends a true voice, a crucial personality, to the music, serving to both enliven and deepen it. This endowment of spirit and will — a microcosmic, musical Genesis — is what ostensibly makes noir “post.” The album’s shift in narrative from the political to the personal — the two in no way mutually exclusive — is suggested even by a cursory glance at the cover art: an image of two faceless phantoms before a silent city starlight.


Along with the album’s short runtime — the longest track “dreaming” is only three minutes and eighteen seconds in length — the saxophone further embodies the ontological finitude that noir embraces. Synthesizers and VST plugins are versatile and can be manipulated in any number of ways to produce several hundred, if not thousands, of timbres and tones. Most contemporary synthesizers and many VST plugins allow pitch-bending, which permits musicians to adjust notes microtonally, producing — among other things — quarter tones, which do not even exist in conventional Western tonal music.

The sax, on the other hand, is limited by the very keys used to play it. Depending on your skill and the member of the saxophone family you play (alto, tenor, etc.), the sax can only play semitones at a range of anywhere from two and a half to four octaves — which is to say, not very many notes. But bolstered by a cohesive palette of sounds and samples — chugging percussive bass, Gilmourian guitar, melodic metal clangs, synthesized pan flutes: the vaporwave toolkit — the saxophone shines through on noir, actually serving to reinforce the album’s tighter scope and familiar narrative.

This, of course, is not so much in spite of its presence, but rather because of it. Although the saxophone’s appearance makes up some of noir’s most captivating moments, these moments are largely characterized by restatement, repetition of simple melody. This is the case on a track like “lounge.” Although likely to be perceived as such, this is not relegation, but rather an affirmation of the saxophone’s role. The saxophone inherently commands attention and, as such, is better put to use in simple refrain than via virtuosic bravado, which can strike as vulgar. The sax’s first appearance here, on the title track “arrival,” actually imparts apprehension — a few pattered, nervous breaths here and there, before a reassuring, soaring interlude that makes up the song’s hook.


A crucial moment occurs at exactly 2:55 of Eyeliner’s “Pinot Noir,” a cut off of last year’s towering release Buy Now. For less than a second, the bass doubles, hiccups — a glaring mistake anyone working with a digital audio workstation would have recognized, but one that Luke Rowell obviously chose to leave in. The mistake, sure enough, is critical to note, reflective of something often diminished in the dialogue vis-à-vis electronic music production: human agency.

Like Buy Now, human fingerprints are all over noir. Both aspire to be more than soft replica, more than an exercise in hypertext — a crude collage of quotes, samples, and sounds — more than de rigeur critique. While the line between presence and being is a fine one, noir aspires to humanity in more ways than one, its emergent properties lending a shared artificial consciousness with the listener. The saxophone, then, is a conduit for imparting this consciousness: an instrument against instrumentality. In spite of its history and context, to call noir vaporwave — both a corruption of and reference to vaporware — would be misleading, an exercise in irony: noir delivers the promise of its product graciously.

Links: Luxury Elite - Self-Released

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